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Tips from an ADHD Coach: Interrupting

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It can be hard not to interrupt someone else speaking when you think of something you want to say — especially if you have ADHD. Maybe you’re worried you’ll forget your great point. Maybe you don’t want the conversation to move to a different topic. Maybe you’re just really excited to share.

ADHD coach Jaye Lin reacts to a quote from Sam’s ADHD Aha! episode about interrupting during a conversation. Tune in to learn why this might happen, and some dos and don’ts for when you feel like you might blurt something out. 

Episode transcript

Jaye: Do you struggle with blurting or interrupting others when they're speaking? Blurting is one of the most common challenges reported by those of us with ADHD, and can have a huge impact on our relationships with others, our confidence in social settings, and how we feel about ourselves as a whole. 

This is "Tips from an ADHD Coach" and I'm your coach, Jaye Lin. Today we're talking about blurting and interrupting. We are going to hear from Sam who was on another Understood.org podcast, "ADHD Aha!," about a time she couldn't keep herself from blurting. 

Sam: It was the first conference in person post-COVID. So, at this fraud accounting conference, back in the world, back to talking to people, I'm ecstatic. But I'm a professional. And so, I'm trying to rein in my excitement. And it is day two, I'm a little tired. Me and some co-workers are sitting at a longer lunch table, and at the end was one of the presenters that went and his was so thrilling. Very exciting. No sarcasm. It was so engaging. I loved it, so I wanted to hear more about what this guy had to say. 

So, he's talking and I'm engaged. I'm excited. I want to hear what he has to say. And then I get this overwhelming urge to talk. And it's like, "Sam, don't say anything, don't say anything, don't say anything, don't say anything. Like you have nothing of value to add. He's the expert. You want to hear what he has to say. Anything you say adds nothing." And I knew it. 

Then all I could think about was not saying something that took away from me listening because I was so, I don't want to say like self-shaming, but I was kind of like, "Sam, if you say something you're going to take away from the moment, could be embarrassing, it's not the time and place.  You're a professional, like, keep it together. Like, let this man talk. He's the expert." And this went on for a few minutes. 

And all of a sudden, I say something. Don't know what I said, but I knew after I said it, it added nothing of value and everybody kind of looked at me and said, "Uh-huh." And then the guy went back to talking, just as I had imagined in my brain it would go. And then I sat there and I was like, "I don't get it. I literally didn't want to talk. I did everything to not talk. Why do I feel like my body and my mouth run before my brain?" 

Jaye: Wow. Sam just shared an experience that I have lived thousands, maybe millions of times. From the outside, it looks like she's just listening and then blurted something. But there's so much activity going on in her head the entire time, and the way she talks to herself is not nice at all, and gets even meaner as the blurting happens. 

First of all, as someone who has been to many conferences for my special interest, you know, ADHD, how Sam describes the emotion she has about the fraud accounting conference really resonates with me. Tired and excited is exactly how I answered when someone asked me how I was feeling the night before last year's International Conference on ADHD, and that makes sense. 

It can feel invigorating to be in social settings around people with the same interests. The topics are personally interesting to us. We are functioning in high excitement, high dopamine states for most of the conference, which can feel pretty great, but our bodies and brains are not meant to function at those high levels for long periods of time. So, even though we feel great when we're experiencing it, it can exhaust us after a while.

After last year's ADHD conference, even though I only had positive experiences, I spent the next three days just napping. For Sam, this is day two, so she's in a high excitement zone which can encourage more impulsivity. And she's also tired, which can make executive dysfunction worse. This makes it much harder for her to manage the impulse to blurt. 

One thing that Sam mentions at the beginning is that she was trying to rein in her excitement because she wanted to act like the professional she is. She was trying to hide her true emotions or personality, which is something we call masking. So, while on the outside she is pumped with excitement, she is using energy to present as someone who is a lot more aloof and cool than she actually feels. 

Masking can use up a lot of the brainpower we need to hold memory temporarily, which is critical for reasoning, decision-making, and impulse control. Those of us with ADHD already have lower levels of that temporary processing brain power, so masking our true emotions and personalities can have a devastating effect for us.

I see this a lot in my clients and in myself. We tell ourselves to be cool and not act more excited than anyone else. As women, this pressure is even higher since it can sometimes be a struggle for us to be taken seriously in the professional world. In reality, though, I find that being excited is usually seen as something positive and we don't always need to rein it in. 

So, she is already experiencing the conditions that encourage blurting, and is able to use less of her brain function for decision-making due to masking. Then she gets the overwhelming urge to talk. What does she do once she gets that urge to say something? Well, it's met with extremely negative self-talk. 

Here's some of what she says to herself, "Don't say anything. You don't have any value to add. Anything you say adds nothing." Wow, that is so mean. I'm pretty sure she would never say things like that to a close friend. That negative self-talk is extremely common for those of us with ADHD, and can be the result of rigid expectations and really harsh criticisms we've heard from things we've done in the past. Sure enough, later on, this is what Sam said. 

Sam: It brought me back to this memory of freshman year of college. We're all sitting kind of in this dorm hallway in between classes. I hate silence. Can't stand silence. And I guess there was a break in the conversation, we're all kind of just chillin', and I said something — once again, no idea what I said, just filling space — and this girl looked at me and she goes, "Sam, sometimes when you talk, I feel like you just like waste air for everyone else." 

So, here I am at this conference, feeling like I did, like at that dorm hallway freshman year. And I was just like, "Oh my God," I really,  like for months after that comment from that girl I like really reined it in. I was like, "Oh my God." Like, it just was this thing of shame for something I couldn't control.

Jaye: That harsh criticism she got from one girl at college became the basis for her ongoing negative self-talk. But despite it being something she does as a precautionary measure, negative self-talk actually worked against her in this scenario. While she is saying all these mean things to herself, it becomes all she can think about and she is no longer actively listening to the speaker at the end of the table.

She already had a lower level of brain processing power to go on with having ADHD, being tired, and masking, and now all of it is being used up by these mean things she's saying to herself. Also, what happens when someone tells us not to do something? "Don't touch that. Don't look behind you." Sometimes telling us not to do something makes the impulse stronger to do it. 

She's telling herself, "Don't say anything. Don't." That 'don't' is meant to keep her from saying something, but it might be pushing her to say something. And then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

She was so fixated on her negative self-talk to keep herself from blurting that she was no longer actively listening to the speaker. When she did say something, it was almost impossible for it to be impactful because it was no longer relevant to where the conversation had gone. She told herself that if she said something, it wouldn't be impactful, and that messaging caused it to be true. 

So, what can we do when we're in Sam's position? When we have the overwhelming urge to say something when someone is speaking? Well, we can focus on the do's, not the don'ts. With ADHD, we work well when we face opportunities. And as I mentioned before, we don't do as well with tight restrictions. The don'ts are usually hard for us, and we can be full of shame when we aren't able to follow through 100%. Every slip-up can feel like failure. And there are no positive outcomes. Only shame. 

Focusing on the do's allows us to take advantage of the challenge, and there can be positive outcomes from following through on our do's. Sam does have some do's, but she's phrased them as an order. "You want to hear what he has to say. Let this man talk. He's the expert." It's still restricting. 

The do's are best achieved and they are attainable challenges. An example is I'll be able to say something impactful later if I'm following along with the points he continues to make. This do makes listening part of the challenge and it's possible to succeed. 

Here are other ways ADHD can affect the urge to blurt. Excitement and impulsivity can sometimes make us feel like we need to say what we are thinking, or we might lose our chance if the conversation moves on. 

Or we can have anxiety about holding our thoughts in our head because of that lower level of temporary brain processing power I talked about earlier. That's called working memory, by the way, and our lower levels of it make it more difficult to keep multiple thoughts in our heads at the same time, so it can feel crucial for us to say our thoughts out loud before we lose them. 

It can also make it more difficult to wait our turn because it's hard to keep what we want to say in our heads, as well as follow along with the current conversation.

If these experiences resonate with you, here's what I suggest. Clear up space in your brain to follow along. Keep a notebook or paper handy for you to jot down what you want to say. If you don't have a notebook handy, I would suggest typing something quick into the notes app on your phone. This keeps what we want to say in a permanent place, so we can clear it from our brains for the conversation.

You can also signal that you have something to say without interrupting. I do this by opening my mouth and maybe gesturing with my hand that I'm about to speak. Then close my mouth and put my hand back down. The person talking will see that I have something on my mind, and when they finish their thought, they will often ask me what I was about to say. 

And if you're worried, the conversation will move on without you getting your word in, just know that you can always go back. It's possible to say, "I know we've moved on, but I have some thoughts about what you were saying earlier." 

Blurting and interrupting is something that a lot of us ADHD folks struggle with because of impulsivity and lower working memory, which makes it harder for us to keep multiple thoughts in our heads at the same time, make decisions, and stay engaged when we have something to say. 

But there are strategies we can put in place. We can free up space in our working memory by focusing on the do's instead of the don'ts. We can write down what we want to say so we can reference it later. We can signal to others that we have something to say instead of interrupting, and feel assured that we can always go back if the conversation moves on. 

With these strategies, we can reduce how often we blurt and interrupt others and increase the amount of time spent actively listening to them. 

You've been listening to "Tips from an ADHD Coach" on the Understood Podcast Network. If you have a challenge that you'd like me to talk about on air or would like to just say hi, you can email us at ADHDCoachTips@understood.org. You can also check out the show notes to find links to anything mentioned in the show and more resources.

This show is brought to you by Understood.org. Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering people with learning and thinking differences, like ADHD and dyslexia. Learn more at Understood.org 

Hosts

  • Jaye Lin

    is an ADHD Coach, speaker, instructor, and podcaster.

    • Cate Osborn

      (@catieosaurus) is a certified sex educator, and mental health advocate. She is currently one of the foremost influencers on ADHD.

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